An Ode to High Skill Ceilings

areluin-48I miss the days when MMOs created classes that had high skill ceilings. By that I mean classes where your success or failure actually hinges on how well you can play your class. This is why I love my rune-keeper in Lord of the Rings Online; depending on how well I’m playing that day, I can take on four or five things my level at once, or die after a single one-to-one fight. Like in chess, I have to think several moves ahead, about how long I can keep throwing DoTs before I switch to putting bubbles and HoTs on myself before switching back to damage. When it works out, it’s the best feeling on Middle-Earth. When it doesn’t, I have no one to blame but myself, and I’m ok with that. Somehow the knowledge that I couldn’t have possibly beaten an encounter because of my class and level makes the game feel scripted and robs it of some of its fun. Both rune-keepers and wardens are looked down upon by some players as “bad” classes, but I’ve seen people do some amazing things with both. It’s not the class that’s bad, it’s that it’s less forgiving to bad players. Sure, we need both–everyone has to start somewhere–but I love when I find a class that allows me to solo group quests, but doesn’t feel overpowered because I had to work for that win.

The worst case is when the skill required to do well is high, but the game doesn’t reward players for it. For instance, I remember when Star Wars the Old Republic’s Shadow/Assassin class could out-tank any other class if the player knew what they were doing. Their rotation was complex, with a lot of defensive cooldowns to make up for their light armor, but it was totally worth it to learn. Sadly, from what I’ve heard from current players, they’re only a shadow of their former selves (pun totally intended) in that respect. They can still tank, but at the end of the day they don’t make better tanks than the Knight or Vanguard, who have to do only a fraction of the work to accomplish the same thing.

Sadly, it seems like many newer games tend to have lower and lower skill ceilings. Some would say it’s because the genre is being slowly dumbed down and casual-ified, and, while there’s some truth to that, I would argue that it has more to do with balance. It’s much easier to balance classes that have a pretty low skill ceiling, because you’re fairly safe in assuming that everyone is going to be playing at or near that ceiling. Also, your testers don’t have to be experts in every class to get an accurate picture of how it will play in the hands of players, just average. I really like WildStar’s solution to this. In WildStar, classes are fairly simple, but player skill is still a huge part of doing well, because you’re constantly moving and dodging red telegraphs while making sure you’re pointed at whatever you’re currently attacking/healing.

My House In TESO vs. My House In LotRO

I’m really glad ESO has added housing. I always love seeing the things players do when given creative freedom. But seriously, guys, I ran all the way to a public instance in Shadowfen from Ebonheart (because it was the closest wayshrine I’ve been to), and all you give me is the “deed” to a hotel room? (Who sells a deed to a room in an inn anyway?) They weren’t even nice enough to start me out with any crappy starter furniture; I have to go buy it off of a vendor before I could claim it. Oh, and I can put my pets and mounts inside for some reason, so if you’ve ever wanted a horse for a roommate you’re in luck. I suppose I should be grateful that I can run all the way to Shadowfen and unlock housing at level 15 thanks to level scaling, but until I get 40k-50k more gold, and then some more for a reasonable amount of furniture, it looks like my choices are between a tiny hotel room or a slightly larger hotel room. Granted, I’ve been playing LotRO a lot longer than I’ve been playing TESO, but I feel like I should be able to get something larger than a prison cell even at this point.

LotRO, however, has housing that is much more accessible to low-level players. Several of my characters’ crafting professions have several housing decoration recipes–something I have yet to run across in TESO despite my obsessive habit of checking every box and barrel in sight–in the first two or three tiers of crafting alone, and I commonly get animal skin drops that can be taxidermized into trophies for free. A few weeks ago, I would have complained about LotRO’s total lack of position controls, but recently (on the same day as TESO’s housing patch, oddly enough) they added in sliders that allow players to move items on the X, Y, and Z axes, allowing for much more freedom. It feels like a super quick-and-dirty fix to a clunky old system, because that’s precisely what it is, but it’s so much better than what we had before.

I guess the difference between the two is that TESO’s housing is geared toward endgame players and LotRO’s isn’t. Maybe level 50 me will look back at this and laugh at the fact that I’m complaining about shelling out 50,000+ gold for a house. We all know that inflation is unavoidable in MMOs (the gold cap in WoW used to be an unimaginably high 37 gold at launch, which is positively destitute by today’s standards), so it’s probably best to aim high on this sort of thing. But right now it’s frustrating that I technically have access to this cool system, and can see screenshots and videos of all of the fun things people are doing with their housing plots, but can’t really do anything myself. I almost wish it was level capped.

So which system is “better?” The answer is that I like the accessibility of LotRO’s housing, and it’s much better than it was, but TESO’s objectively has more potential. There are more decorations allowed, there’s more freedom of placement, and it’s simply a newer game with better design. I also think some of that potential will be tarnished by a system that’s designed to tempt you to just skip the fundraising stage and just buy a furnished house from the cash shop, but with cash shop house packages ranging from around $20 to well over $100 (!), I think I’ll stick to saving up my gold.

When MMOs Need An Overhaul

MMOs are somewhat unique in that they are, by nature, persistent and ever changing and expanding. Single player games may come out with a few expansions or DLCs, but other than that, the developers generally scrap everything and create a sequel. In MMOs, however, you can’t really scrap anything, you have to constantly add new content if you want to keep players happy and coming back for more. This is one of the things that I love about the genre, but it also creates a problem. Sooner or later, the game gets bogged down in so many things–progression systems, extra gear slots, gear augmentation, etc.–that, at some point, it really starts to overwhelm new and returning players–sometimes even consistent players who don’t spend a lot of time reading forums and wikis and the like–and it really needs and overhaul. Marvel Heroes’ new 2.0 update (“Biggest Update Ever”) got me thinking about this. I had a big post written about the update that I never posted, partly because, to talk about all of the changes, it ended up being a mile long, but also because it ended up sounding more like a review, and there are people out there who can do that a lot better than I can. To summarize, I really like the update as a whole, I can also see where it went wrong in a few places, but most of all, this was a totally necessary change that, aside from a few hiccups, was handled more or less in the best way possible. So, I’ll be using Marvel Heroes as a case study to talk about overhauls in general.

If at all possible, updates should be done a little at a time. Overhaul one system, then, when that’s settled down, overhaul another. Marvel Heroes, for example, reviewed and overhauled one older hero a month for years. This approach is great because it allows the team to focus on one thing at a time, and it keeps panic down in the community. Speaking of community, they often know the state of the gameplay better than its developers do, so involving them as much as possible as early as reasonably possible is ideal. From what I’ve heard, this is something Marvel Heroes didn’t do so great at with 2.0, but hopefully they’ll take feedback into consideration for future updates. Sometimes, as is the case in Marvel Heroes’ most recent update, you really have to overhaul everything at once (you can’t just rework the whole way power work one hero at a time, and while you’re shaking up hero’s powers is the only really good time to redo the rather arcane and convoluted Omega system), and, when that’s the case, it needs to be communicated early and often.

When a massive update needs to happen all at once, the developers need to sit down and figure out what needs changed, what needs streamlined, and what needs removed altogether, and focus on that alone. I like that Marvel Heroes didn’t pair this update with a new content expansion; they just worked on streamlining the game and balancing all of the classes, and that’s pretty much it. Not only does it allow more crucial manpower to go into the overhaul part, but it also disassociates the overhaul from any other added content. For instance, I heard a lot of negativity about WoW Cataclysm, not because the endgame content was bad, but because it streamlined and accelerated the leveling process, removing and changing a lot of content from the beginning of the game that people knew and loved. As a non-WoW player who knows several WoW players, I don’t really know a whole lot about what Cataclysm added; I mainly know about what it took away.

At the end of the day, no matter what you do, someone’s going to hate it. It’s best to just resign yourself to that fact, both as a developer, and as a player. People who are content don’t tend to get on forums and write lengthy posts about how the update is nice, or at least marginally better than what we had before. It’s the people who are upset that their favorite class isn’t as OP as it used to be, or who have some reason why they liked the game better when it was inaccessible to new players, that will stamp their feet and threaten to leave the game forever if something isn’t done about it by next patch.

I know all of this is much easier said than done. I’m actually in the process of developing a single-player RPG with a friend right now, and just balancing that is hard enough, I can’t imagine a game with sixty classes that’s constantly being picked apart by min/maxers. I know video games are made by companies with higher-ups that aren’t always as interested in what’s best for the game so much as what’s best for the bottom line, and sometimes the only way you’re going to get funding approved for a major systems overhaul is if you bundle it with a paid expansion or other major content drop. But overall, I think Marvel Heroes has done a good job managing this update, and I’ve been really enjoying it so far.

GW2: All Classes At 80: A Retrospective

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I never thought I’d achieve it in any game (not that it’s really much of an achievement in Guild Wars 2). In the final days of 2016, I finally got the last of the nine classes to 80. Yes, I’ve had the Tomes of Knowledge to get them to 80 for quite a while, but I don’t like to use those without at least the majority of the work normally. I think it’s now safe to say that Guild Wars 2 has had more staying power than any other video game that I’ve played. I’m not quite sure why, but I’m ok with it. Now that I’ve got all nine classes at 80 and messed around at least a little bit with their elite specs, I thought I’d share a bit about what worked and what didn’t.

My first 80 was the engineer. I was initially attracted to the class because I thought I could play it like my STO engineer; build a bunch of turrets to support and deal damage, then finish off anything left with my dual pistols. Unfortunately, as I got closer to endgame, it became apparent that ArenaNet hates turrets, and I swapped them out for grenades and a flamethrower. Spamming giant, long-range AoEs is fun for a while, and the flamethrower is fun visually, if not terribly good damage, but eventually I moved on to other classes. Now I, sadly, almost never play engi. The addition of the hammer with the Scrapper elite spec was interesting, but not enough to hold my interest.

I have a lot of trouble deciding what my favorite class is. For a long time I said my necromancer was my favorite, and he’s still the character I did all of the expansion and living story stuff on first. Necros do lots of damage over time and their survivability is great, even for someone like me who often forgets to use the shroud form. The thief was a very close second for a while, but they tend to have a very simplistic ideal “rotation,” consisting mostly alternating between their autoattack and whatever gets them the most damage in this fight. Thieves are also lacking in the ranged damage department, which proved to be a big problem in Heart of Thorns. Now, however, my favorite class may be the revenant. Maybe it’s just because it’s newer and shinier, added in the Heart of Thorns expansion, but I really like it for its versatility. I play my revenant as a group support build, but they have great survivability, can do a little tanking (at least as much tanking as any class in a game with no tanks can do), and they crank out good DPS with either direct damage or damage over time.

The mesmer is the class I find both the most unique and the most difficult to play. Unfortunately I’ve never felt very rewarded for all of that complexity, so it’s one of my less played classes. They have some nice utilities–stealth, speed boosts, portals, etc.–but that’s never been enough to keep my attention for long. The chronomancer makes some nice additions to its selection of support abilities, but it still wasn’t for me. Also up there in the complexity department is the elementalist, who I initially hated, but eventually grew to love after I played around with the different options long enough and eventually settled on staff, alternating between fire and air. The overload mechanic introduced by the elite spec really adds a lot to the way it plays, in my opinion, giving you a reason to switch elements, but also giving you a reason to stick with that element for a while.

So what did I do to celebrate the accomplishment of getting all of the classes to 80? I promptly bought a new character slot and rolled another thief. I think I have a problem.

2017 Predictions, Hopes, and Resolutions

Well, here we are, another trip around the sun and the world hasn’t exploded, civilization as we know it hasn’t come to an end, and the MMO industry hasn’t completely evaporated. I know 2016 was getting a lot of hate, but as for me, I had a pretty good year. And I think the gaming industry–especially the MMO industry–had a pretty good year as well. I thought I’d use the first post of the year to talk about what my predictions and hopes are for next year, and what would a New Year’s post be without resolutions?

Predictions

A New Guild Wars 2 Expansion
This isn’t much of a prediction; we’ve heard very strong rumblings of a new expansion to Guild Wars 2 set in an area from Guild Wars 1. Sadly, I haven’t played much of the original Guild Wars, so I have no specific predictions there, but it seems reasonable given the direction the living world story is going. I predict that it will include a new class, probably something revived from Guild Wars 1, and a new zone that’s less vertical/gliding-focused (and, by extension, hopefully less awful to navigate). As much as I’d like to see a new race, I don’t think that will ever happen; it would be a lot of work to fit them into the existing storyline. I don’t think raids are going away, but I think we’ll also see a couple of new dungeons in 2017. I could be totally wrong on this one, but I think the community hasn’t been as thrilled about raids as ArenaNet thought, and I think they’ll finally break down and give us some new dungeons.

WildStar Sunsets Near the End of the Year
It really saddens me to make this prediction because I love Wildstar, I love its combat, I love its setting, and I love its housing, but I just don’t see WildStar lasting much longer. What’s worse is that it becomes kind of a self fulfilling prophecy; everyone keeps saying it’s dying, and nobody want to get invested in a game that’s going to shut down in six months, so no new players come in, and the game shuts down. But hey, it’s possible that it’ll just downsize and put content out more slowly than before and keep on keeping on for years to come. I really hope so. Only time will tell.

LotRO and DDO Flourish Under New Management
Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online recently went indie with developer Standing Stone studios. While the fact that they’re being published by Daybreak isn’t exactly comforting, as Daybreak has been making some weird decisions ever since it changed hands from SOE, not the least of which was the media silence and eventual demise of EverQuest Next, I think the fact that Standing Stone was willing to pick up development of the games says a lot about its future. I’ve popped my head into LotRO a few times over the last few days, and the community seems cautiously optimistic. I’ve talked to a few long-time players that say that the game was better when Turbine was indie, and hope that this is a return to that standard. It seems like the excitement is even bringing some past players back, which is always a good sign.

Kickstarter Falls Out of Favor
To say that 2016 was not kind to kickstarters would be like saying that a few celebrities died in 2016. Mighty No. 9 was a colossal failure, VR was (predictably) not as game-changing as Oculus et al. claimed it would be, the Pebble smartwatch sold out to Fitbit and canceled most of its Pebble 2 preorders, John Smedley’s Hero’s Song failed it meet its Kickstarter goal and then closed its doors just after Christmas, a variety of kickstarted MMOs suffered from setbacks, delays, and disillusioned backers, and that’s just to name the ones I was following. I think people are starting to realize that making a video game is a very expensive endeavor, and that maybe paying for it before it’s even produced isn’t the best way to motivate inexperienced developers to release a quality product. I really like the idea of crowdfunding, but I’m going to need a lot of convincing before I back anything else.

Hopes

A Strong, Traditional, Western MMORPG Appears
It doesn’t have to come out in 2017, but we really need an announcement of something to fill the void that EverQuest Next left. I’ve played EQ2 for maybe a couple hours total, and even I was extremely disappointed in EQN’s cancellation. I’m not saying that if one of these games doesn’t materialize in 2017 the entire MMO industry will be doomed to stagnation and death, I’m just hoping for this because I enjoy playing new and different MMORPGs. All of the scrappy Kickstarted indie MMOs floating around out there are nice, but I don’t know if they’re going to have the presence, impact, and drawing power that EQN would have had. I think we need a big AAA studio to come out and make a statement that, scoff all you want, but there’s still lots of money to be made in MMOs, and plenty of life left in the formula.

SWTOR’s F2P Gets Better
Star Wars the Old Republic has always had one of the most restrictive free-to-play options. I know of no other game where you have to pay to hide your head slot or have enough hotbars just to have access to all of your skills. But with the addition of the Galactic Command and the removal of weekly content passes, they’re basically telling free players not to plan on doing any endgame without subscribing. I was really hoping that SWTOR’s business model would get less restrictive over time, not more. I’m really hoping that there’s enough negative feedback that at least some of it gets reevaluated, but I’m not holding my breath.

Resolutions

Play More Mobile Games… While Exercising!
I have a desk job, and my MMO hobby isn’t exactly the most active one, so my wife and I have been looking at putting our Christmas money toward an elliptical, and I really like the idea of motivating myself to exercise by finding a game that I only play while I work out. I’ll probably be looking for something turn-based like Hearthstone or the various Final Fantasy games available on Android, so if you have any suggestions, let me know.

Spend Less On Steam, More On MMOs
I have over 350 games on Steam right now, and I’ve only finished a handful of them. Generally, the average Steam game I buy gets played for a couple of hours at most, yet I’ve spent countless hours this year playing MMOs. Why, then, do I tend to spend way more money on single-player games than on MMOs? I want to make a conscious effort to spend less on Steam and more on the MMOs I play. I just wish MMO cash shops had as many sales as Steam does.

I’ll pull this post back out a year from now and see how I did on everything. Happy new year, everyone!

TESO: Things I’m Liking So Far

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I’ve recently come back to The Elder Scrolls Online (again). It’s a really solid game that’s much better than the game that launched, even better since the One Tamriel level scaling system (which kind of calls into question why an Elder Scrolls game level restricted zones to begin with, and whether or not this is/should be an outdated mechanic for other games… but that’s a post for another day). I came back to it mainly because I’m interested in housing when it comes out in February (and I’m sure there’ll be a lot of gold involved in that, so I’m trying to get some saved up), but I’ve found a lot of things to love about the game in the mean time.

Crafting Is Interesting
I’m not a big crafting person. Sure, in Guild Wars 2 and the like I eventually get around to doing crafting, but more out of a sense of guilt for having all of these crafting mats than because I was motivated to craft for crafting’s sake. A lot of it is probably because, since I left my first MMO, Runescape, I’ve never gotten into any MMOs that are sandboxy or otherwise crafting-focused. But in Elder Scrolls I’m actually crafting starting at a very low level, not only because most of the stuff you get from quests is garbage, but also because they actually make it interesting and rewarding. I’ve already found a couple of motifs to be able to craft armor and weapons in styles other than my own race’s, which is always interesting and exciting. Daily crafting writs are basically free XP. And, of course, I always love it when all professions can gather all materials. Deconstruction is also an interesting idea; deconstructing something made by another player will grant more XP than something you craft yourself, which encourages trade of otherwise worthless items.

Story Is Interesting, Not Overwhelming
It’s hard to strike the right balance of story and gameplay. I must admit, for as much as I love SWTOR and its storytelling, when I did all of KotFE at once, I got a little sick of the amount of talking involved. Granted, a lot of that was because of the fact that the DvL clock was ticking, but there is such a thing as too much talking and not enough action. Conversely, I’ve always felt like Guild Wars 2 was a little light in its storytelling department. Elder Scrolls has, so far, seemed to strike the right balance of meaningful, voiced conversations, many with optional lines of questioning.

The Graphics
Man, this game is pretty. It almost makes the incredibly long load times worth it.

Subscription Optional, But Worth It
I almost never subscribe to MMOs if I don’t have a good reason, and this is the first buy-to-play game that I’ve subscribed to almost immediately. I was in the cash shop, thinking about buying the $15 premium currency package so I could get an account wide mount (later I realized that gold-bought mounts may be account wide as well… oh well, the black and white horse I bought is neat, and not too flashy), when I realized that subscribing for $15 a month gets you $15 of cash shop currency, and opens up the crafting bag, as well as all of the DLCs. SWTOR, take note, this is how you entice me to sub to your game; not by taking away features from your free players, by making your sub actually worthwhile.

Combat
I keep saying that I don’t really like action combat games, but I’m beginning to think that it’s more that I don’t like bad action combat, because ESO’s combat is actually pretty fun, if a bit repetitive. I’ve written before about how I actually like limited hotbars in many ways. Before weapon swapping becomes available at level 15 it feels a bit restrictive, but even so, I prefer it to anything in any other Elder Scrolls game.

How Player Build Guides Brought Me Back to The Elder Scrolls Online

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I have a paralyzing fear in games with open-ended, sandbox character development that I will put hours and hours into a character and then realize that I made a character that isn’t viable, or that I just don’t like. Yes, skill resets are a thing in most games, but they’re usually pretty expensive, especially around mid-game where problems start to show themselves. I’ve talked about this before with Rift, and Elder Scrolls Online is no different. I’ve been toying with this title for a while, but I’ve been put over the edge by the upcoming housing, which looks great.

My go-to play style in MMOs has always been to be DoT-focused. I started with a nightblade with a focus on bleeds and inferno staff, but I quickly realized that I was actually killing stuff faster if I just spammed one of my direct damage attacks. If I’m noticing this at level 7, is it going to get better as I run into enemies with more health, or will it just get worse? I did some Googling and found that many players were saying that DoT damage in TESO is pretty much crap; something to supplement your damage with, not to focus on. So I thought maybe I’d try a summoning sorcerer. Pets are basically DoTs with health bars, right? Well, pets are also crap, apparently. So I started poking around what is viable, and I found a templar healer/tank hybrid called Atlas that sounds really interesting to me. The description says it’s not good for Trials (raids), but that the author was able to 2-man some veteran dungeons with a DPS, which sounds more fun to me anyways.

I know some of you are thinking “You’re relying too much on other people’s opinions! Just play what you think is fun!” I know you’re thinking it because I would be thinking it too, and it made me feel a bit guilty at first. In most games, I’ll play my character in whatever way seems fun, then, when I hit the level cap and think about endgame content, I look up a build guide. I generally don’t follow them strictly, but these people have generally put a lot of theorycrafting and experimentation into their builds, so it would almost be dumb not to at least look at it. And, in Elder Scrolls Online’s case, I’m making decisions at the beginning of the game that will affect how my character plays at endgame (skill points and attribute points), before I have any idea what works and what doesn’t in this game. It’s really nice to at least see what other players are doing to at least confirm or deny that something I’m doing is worth my time.

Again, I probably won’t follow any particular guide to the letter, but there’s a certain amount of comfort in having something to use as a baseline in a game with so much freeform character development. So thanks to Deltia and everyone else out there who writes guides for noobs like me!